When we were growing up back on Flamingo Street, if we wanted to traverse the roadways through downtown Atlanta, there were four different routes.
The first route is I-20, which runs east and west, bisecting downtown into two sections to the north and south. Second, we could use I-75 or I-85, both of which run north to south through the middle of Atlanta. If any of these routes were backed up due to wrecks, which they often were, then we were stuck … unless we used the fourth way to navigate the clogged traffic. The fourth way was only in our car and Dad always sat behind the steering wheel.
Long before GPS and alternate routes on cell phones, the solution for any traffic nightmare in and through downtown Atlanta was our dad. Being a door-to-door salesman for over thirty years in downtown, he not only knew the roadways by memory, but also had a daily update of anything going on that should be circumvented.
When I was a teenager riding with him on Saturdays, I was amazed how easily he navigated the maze of downtown streets without the use of any maps – especially when he let me drive. When I turned down one-way streets going the wrong way, he’d laugh. Even though the signage was missing, Dad always knew which way to go. When I ended up at the end of a dead-end street, he’d say, “Should’ve turned around three driveways ago.”
He was aware of any speed limit on any street even though it was rarely posted, and most importantly, when driving with my dad around lunchtime, he always had me pull into the best neighbor eateries. From restaurants, clean bathrooms, construction zones, potholes, road closures, the quickest or shortest way to get there, Dad was our version of GPS way back in the day.
Thanks to riding and driving with my dad for all those years in and around downtown Atlanta, I’ve always been able to navigate my way out of any traffic clog … that is, until last week.
As you remember, Dear Reader, The Wife, our two granddaughters, and Yours Truly had set out early Thursday morning for a quick three-day trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Because of the heavy fog, we knew it would take a little longer than the normal two and a half hours to reach our hotel, and that’s why I wanted to leave much earlier than 8:00 a.m., hoping the fog would burn off soon.
And if we hit any traffic clogs, with my memory map of downtown surface streets, I could navigate around anything. We’d just go slow and enjoy the ride. Afterall, we just started our vacation. What could possibly go wrong?
Because the fog was so thick, our lights could barely reach ten feet in front of our car, so getting to I-85 took us longer than normal. Taking the on-ramp, I was sure we could make up for lost time simply by driving with the flow of traffic.
We did drive with the flow of traffic … except the flow was going incredibly slow due to the heavy fog that still hadn’t burnt off. We were going only thirty miles an hour, so I made the decision to bypass Downtown and take 285 around Atlanta to miss all the traffic and fog. A little more time in the car together? Not a problem. After all, we were on vacation. What could possibly go wrong?
After taking 285, the traffic was slower and fog thicker. By the time we saw the DOT sign warning that all lanes of 75 North were closed, it was too late. We found ourselves stuck in-between exits and, like the fog, not moving at all.
Though I had my dad’s mapping skills, he never told me how to navigate and find an alternate route in such a situation. Now two hours into a two-and-a-half-hour trip, we hadn’t even made it out of Atlanta. Still, “We’re on vacation. What else could possibly go wrong?”
At this point The Wife and the granddaughters yelled in unison, “Stop saying that!” The Wife added, “It can always get worse.”
Before I could respond, someone up above, or ahead, must’ve heard us and the traffic started to move. Soon, we were hitting the blistering speed of 5 MPH. Then, just as suddenly as the traffic started, it stopped dead once again.
“Great. What else could go wrong?” And that’s when the words no one wants to hear on a vacation when you’re hopelessly stuck in traffic were uttered, “I got to go pee.” Unfortunately, those words were spoken by me.
Concentrating on the stopped traffic, I wondered if I could jump out and duck behind a fog bank but quickly dismissed the idea when the Wife pointed out we were stopped right next to an exit ramp. Once up at the top of the ramp, just off to the right shining like a beacon barely breaking through the fog, was the sign from that chicken place with the red roof.
Having now been in the car for three hours, we decided it was time for a break — and lunch. With time to map out the backroads, I was sure we would soon be on our way. Armed with a chicken sandwich and large sweet tea, I was sure I could find us a surface road through the fog. Besides, we’re on vacation and not in any hurry. What else could possibly go wrong? (This time, I kept that last line to myself.)
It took another hour on back roads to finally get out of Atlanta. The heavy fog and traffic were with us all the way to the Tennessee border — where we got stuck once again.
Not moving on I-24, the complaining started. “I can’t believe this.” “We need to turn around.” “It’s been over four hours?!” “Should’ve gone through downtown instead.” “I wanted to leave an hour earlier.” All the complaining above was from me. No one else was really complaining.
The Girly Girls kept drawing on their sketch pads, happy to be on vacation, and The Wife was answering her last work email. When we reached our hotel, the fog finally lifted, and so had our spirits. Over dinner we found out that due to the lingering heavy fog, not one but six accidents and one fatality had occurred on I-75 North just an hour before we had left the house. If we had left when I’d wanted to, any one of those accidents could’ve included us!
That sobering thought reframed the entire vacation for me. I started to relax and not worry about things. That night, after tucking the Girly Girls in, I climbed into bed and lay next to The Wife, thankful we had safely made it through our first day of vacation. And as I drifted off to sleep, my last conscious thoughts were, “We’re on vacation. We’re gonna have fun. Besides, what else could possibly go wrong?”
And that’s when the fire alarm blared in our hotel, and we had to evacuate wearing only pajamas in frigid weather. But that’s a story for another time.
[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001.]