Proud to be from here especially when I’m there
It’s hard to be humble when I’m away from home and someone asks me where I’m from. I love saying I’m from Ozark County, Missouri, and I like describing how pleasantly rural life is here by bragging that there’s not a single three-color traffic light in the whole county.
“Wow!” city-dwellers usually reply.
That response is especially common among folks I meet in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where my daughter and her family live among the six million residents of that metropolitan area.
The capital-area highway system is truly a wonder to behold, and it’s also the total opposite of Ozark County’s low-vehicle-count driving experience. When I’m visiting there, I’m happy to haul my granddaughters around in the family’s minivan, taking them to school, swim class, soccer practice, birthday parties or some other destination of great importance. Usually it’s someplace close by in the neighborhood. But sometimes we must venture onto the Washington Beltway, and when I’m out there on that multi-lane, high-speed highway with thousands of other drivers, I often think of a day, years ago, when I was driving my elderly mom from her home in Gainesville to the high school for some event.
We motored through the Gainesville square and then paused at the stop sign at Third Street and Highway 160 to let six or seven cars pass.
“Just look at all the traffic!” Mom exclaimed.
That’s my thought exactly when I’m out there on the Beltway that encircles our nation’s capital city.
I’m not afraid of big-city driving. In fact, I’ve driven in metro areas from New York City to Seattle, Chicago to Houston without incident. My problem with driving in the D.C. area is that there are so many multi-lane, high-speed highways (most of them perpetually under construction, it seems), and each one seems to have a different set of rules. On the Beltway, which has four or five lanes in each direction, these rules are spelled out on huge, 20-foot-tall signs you’re supposed to read while cruising along, bumper-to-bumper, at what feels like 200 miles per hour all while your navigation system barks orders at you and the grandkids are yelling about someone’s epic misbehavior in the backseat.
The rules for the HOV lanes are the hardest to comprehend. HOV stands for “high occupancy vehicle,” which, on some DC-area highways at some hours, means two people, and on other highways at other times means three people.
Sometimes these HOV lanes are separate highways with their own exits off the Beltway. Sometimes the HOV exit is from the left-most lane, and sometimes it’s from the right. You never know, until you read the sign – while driving at 200 miles per hour beside all the other cars around you and also, in my case, trying to remember how many granddaughters I have in the car at that moment so I know whether we qualify for the three-person HOV lanes, or I need to rocket across all five lanes to the regular “low-occupancy” exit on the other side.
Here’s another challenging rule: It’s possible to drive in the HOV lanes when you’re the only occupant in the car – if those lanes are labeled as “express” and/or “EZ pass” and if you have the little EZ pass gadget stuck to your windshield and if you have the gadget switch slid to the left or right (I can never remember which way it goes) so that you pay to travel alone in your car in these prima donna high-speed lanes.
The scary thing is, somewhere out there is another gadget that reads your gadget and also counts how many people are in your car. If the Big Brother gadget doesn’t like what it sees, your car’s owner gets a letter in the mail saying, in so many words, that their car was driven by someone who’s too stupid to drive in the Washington metro area, and because of that, they have to pay a big fine, usually $100 or so.
Don’t ask me how I know this.
Of course, all of these rules are spelled out clearly on the huge signs along the Washington Beltway, which you might possibly understand if you could only pull over and spend 5-10 relaxing minutes reading them. But you cannot pull over. You must keep traveling 200 miles per hour with the rest of the 10 gazillion drivers around you, even if it means you miss both the regular and the HOV exit and end up going to Baltimore or Richmond when you actually wanted to head to the Lincoln Monument.
The truth is, in the 10-plus years I’ve been visiting my daughter there, whenever I’ve had to venture out onto the Beltway, I’ve rarely ended up where I meant to go on the first try. (I have, however, seen some very historic buildings and fascinating neighborhoods.)
I love visiting my daughter and her family, and I’m really impressed by Washington, D.C., and all that it represents. But usually, after I’ve been there awhile, I’m ready to come home and return to Ozark County-style driving, where I can pause at a stop sign to let six or seven cars pass by and think, Just look at all the traffic!