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Passing the time on I-81

Posted: October 31, 2013 8:17 a.m.
Updated: November 1, 2013 5:00 a.m.

As interstate highways go -- long on speed but generally short on scenery -- I-81 is one of the most attractive. It winds its way up the scenic Shenandoah Valley from southern Virginia to Scranton, Pa., and beyond.

Wife Nancy and I are regular I-81 travelers in spring and fall, making our way to and from the Maine island where we spend time. Scranton’s the half-way point, about 650 miles, and from then on, the concrete ribbon bends east towards Boston, and then on to Maine.

When it comes to infrastructure, there haven’t been many improvements to the interstate highway system in the last few years.

But time passes, and with it comes change. The coffee along the way is better, drivers of giant semi rigs are worse and motel staffs have gotten friendlier. 

A decade ago, coffee at interstate road stops was universally horrid -- a mud-like goo that looked like runoff from a rusty sewer pipe and tasted like … well, we’re not going to go there.

But just as the coffee scene across the country has leapt forward since a little company named Starbucks was founded, relegating Maxwell House to java mediocrity, convenience stores and fast-food outlets have figured out that good coffee brings in customers.

Heck, you can get a decent cup of joe at convenience store/gas stations whose only previous coffee qualification was that it had been brewed sometime within the last four days.

And fast-food restaurants, led by McDonald’s, have upgraded their coffee, too; for those who want something more than a basic cup of caffeine to make a long drive wake-able, they’ve got all sorts of cappuccinos and lattes and other girly drinks.

But if the coffee has gotten better, big-rig drivers have gotten worse.

Time was semi jockeys were the best drivers on the road -- considerate, safe, aware of the fact that their lumbering behemoths couldn’t move as fast as smaller, nimbler vehicles.

Not to tar everyone with the same brush, for there certainly are first-class rig drivers out there, but there are also lots of road hogs sitting in high cabs these days, and nobody in a car or pick-up is going to challenge one of those leviathans.

You’ve no doubt seen it yourself: facing a long, uphill slog, a semi pulls into the left lane to pass an even-slower rig, and three miles later is still trying to gain ground while cars stack up behind.

Whatever the truck driving schools are teaching, lots of guys aren’t catching on.

But motel and hotel staff are friendlier these days.

Used to be, you checked in and they tossed you a key, and that was about it. Nowadays, they’re handing out chocolate chip cookies and friendly advice and asking you what they can do for you.

It makes for a much more pleasant stay when somebody acts as if they care.

Also, audio books might be the best invention ever for passing the time on those marathon drives.

Just a couple weeks ago, I listened to a biography of John Adams and discovered a startling fact I had somehow missed in school. Adams, our second president, and Thomas Jefferson, our third -- and, of course, author of the Declaration of Independence -- both died on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after this country formally decided it would be free.

Pretty neat fact, eh?

I also listened to a golf book by nifty sportswriter Rick Reilly. I didn’t learn anything but it was certainly entertaining, and when you’ve got 1,300 miles to cover and lots of tractor-trailer rigs to dodge, that’s important.

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