Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Drive On

I've confirmed my near-constant suspicions that Jill cannot be trusted.

Jill is my GPS.

I've been wary of her directions ever since her predecessor, Emily, and then she herself joined our collection of devices.  Her choice routes are almost never MY choice routes (why, oh why, with the constant insistence that I travel in the local lanes of the highway, rather than the express lanes, even when I'M NOT GETTING OFF!?), and her continual inability to account for the occasional (or in my case, nearly constant) red light when calculating the ETA is always a source of frustration. Yet she is my only source of directions on the fly if I find myself in unfamiliar territory. So we struggle along, Jill and I. And sometimes I even humor her, taking her directions, even when I'm pretty sure mine are better. If only to avoid the endless chime of "Recalculating." But I also secretly think it makes her happy, as if inside that little black screen is an actual person who is mentally screaming "idiot" at me as she politely asks me to make a U-turn when I've disregarded her directions.

Why wax poetic about my GPS? I've been making the trek back and forth between our Maryland house and a nondescript hotel near the Dulles airport in Northern Viriginia this week. The Department of Defense (my employer), along with lots of other government agencies, has eliminated all "non-essential" overnight travel in a mostly-admirable attempt to save money and cut down on misuse of funds. No one wants to be the next group slammed in a new article about conference-attending employees drinking champagne in bathtubs with strippers. I  get it, I do. I don't like being part of the well-behaving majority that is getting punished for the sins of a few, but I do get it. Unfortunately, it means that my colleagues and I now have to drive back and forth from our homes to attend the research review meetings hosted on behalf of our own office - not an easy feat when you live in one of the traffic capitals of the nation.

To make my 8:00 a.m. meeting start time, I rush, rush, rush to get out of the house so that I can sit, sit, sit with thousands of my best friends on a packed highway. The morning ride in isn't too bad - I have a steaming mug of coffee and NPR to keep me company. It's the afternoon that's much worse. I turn on the car and set Jill for Home, and then I eye the little red circle on the left hand side that tells me the length of the delay I'm about to  encounter. It goes something like this: Car on, route set. Delay reads 3 minutes. I glance over 20 seconds later, and we're hovering at a 5 minute delay. Not too bad, but we're only getting started. Within about 5 seconds, the GPS is registering a 30 minute delay.

And I haven't even left the parking lot yet.

I then watch as the delay fluctuates wildly between 20 to 49 minutes from moment to moment, up and down, up and down. I don't have much else to do as I sit on the entrance ramp for the D.C. beltway, waiting for my turn to wrestle into the slow moving traffic. Occasionally I call M. with an update, trying to figure out if I'll make it home for dinner, for back-to-school night at school, for bedtime.

I know the way, of course. These meetings are almost always at the same hotel, and I've been driving to it for years. But I bring Jill along with me to give me reassurance when night has fallen. Her voice is more pleasant then, when the cars aren't squished around me, but my fear of not seeing the road, or an obstacle, or the exit ramp presses in, making my hands grip the steering wheel tightly. I hate driving at night. And during the daylight, when traffic is at its worst, I imagine I can count on her to re-route me when the delays get too bad. That's why I had her on yesterday, when traffic was already looking ominous, and it took me 15 minutes just to traverse the ramp between one highway and another. Unfortunately, there's no such thing as an "alternate route" until after the Potomac - one must cross it to get from Virginia to Maryland, and opportunities to do so are few and far between. Three crossings, in fact, and I kid you not, one of them is an actual auto ferry boat (the lines of cars waiting to get on. THE LINES. This is not an actual, sane option), while the other brings me far north of where I actually live. So I have no choice but to cross the Woodrow Wilson bridge on the D.C beltway, regardless of traffic conditions. After, though, there's at least one other route choice that involves leaving the highway that could take me home, one I've never actually driven, but I know it exists. I figured Jill would tell me if I needed to use it. I crawled along, flipping radio stations (could we PLEASE play songs other than "Blurred Lines," PLEASE?), for 4 miles. Jill was happy with my progress, and complained not a whit.

And then, of course, when I was ON TOP OF the alternate route exit, she decided to re-route me. Onto the exit ramp that was 0.1 miles and 5 lines of traffic away. Thanks, Jill.

Needless to say, I did not make it. Didn't attempt it, even. Just crawled along with half of humanity on my original route. Eventually I spotted a pair of cars stopped in the middle lane of the highway. It's too hard to say if their presence was really a major factor in the traffic or not - was the traffic worse because they were stopped? Or did they have an accident because the traffic was worse than usual? Everyone flowed around them with minimal issue, and little change in speed. Possibly because we were all already going so slowly.

Interestingly, I saw a car stalled in the exact same lane and spot on my way home today, too. This time, Jill didn't try to re-route me. Maybe I'm training her.

The sad thing is that in both cases, none of the traffic reports I heard mentioned the stopped cars. It's a bit invalidating when a drive that should have been 40 minutes takes 2 hours, and not one bit of it bears mentioning on the radio. Which is probably just testament to the idea that speeds of 12 miles an hour are pretty much par for the course around D.C. at commuting time.

Tomorrow I head back to my office via my usual 30 minute commute. I think I'll leave Jill at home.

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