Saturday, March 17, 2007

storms, gunpowder and scampi

I had forgotten what it was like to be stuck on the roads. I live in a north-Midwestern town where winters are long and so often miserable, yet they rarely affect my comings and goings. If I look outside and see snow, I think: warmer scarf needed, and I head out.

The goal yesterday was to drive early from D.C. to Wilmington, Delaware (some 110 miles), do some work at the Hagley library on the DuPont estate, see a little of the countryside up and down the Chesapeake Bay and head back to D.C. in time for a late dinner.

Oh, I read all about the heavy rains and snows that were to pound the east coast. Still, I am not typically deterred by weather. Some have remarked that I should have been a long haul truck driver – I am that calm and resolute when I hit the roads. (I could not be a long haul truck driver. America’s superhighways put me to sleep.)

But I95, linking DC with Baltimore, Wilmington (and then Philadelphia or New York) is something else. It must be the east coast version of L.A. highways. Cars move and at a rapid pace, but in a tight configuration of traffic. You jump in, stay in and hope that you find a spot to jump out at the right exit.

Still, we are on the road in good time, the rains are powerful, but the visibility is decent. We persevere.

A little dicy by the time we hit the DuPont estate, but still, we’re good, we’re calm. We even pause for a latte before settling in.

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a quick stop at the Brew Ha Ha

The DuPonts. The early American industrialists who made their wealth in manufacturing gunpowder. Right here in Wilmington. I resisted the 3.5 hour tour of their estate, and so I cannot give you much in terms of photos, but it is a wonder: a real display of industrial growth, wealth and labor. I did sneak up on the DuPont mansion – the first of the many they were to build in the area. Here it is, splendidly peaking at you from amidst old trees:

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By early afternoon, I was ready to leave the compound and poke around the Maryland area (sorry, Delaware, there’s not much to you and so the goal quickly became to drive down to the Maryland coast.)

Rainswept coast, fishing boats and towns, clam shacks, farmhouses and villages with diners and old barber shops. Those were the images I had going into it.

I saw a barber shop.

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And then, lots and lots of slow moving traffic, trying desperately to stay on the road as sheets of ice and wet slush pound the east coast. Cars on the road, cars off the road, cars in places they should not be, cars trying to get places, slowly, very slowly.

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Such slow going. A mile over an eternity. By the time I reach Elkton, at the northern tip of the bay, it is clear that I will not see much of the coast, of towns, of villages, of boats or water. Except the frozen stuff, pouring out of the skies.

On this day, the northern Maryland landscape looks like something straight out of… Wisconsin.

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My cell phone is ringing. My daughter, stuck in the Hagley library is calling for a rescue. They’re closing early because of the weather. I’m miles away from the DuPonts, from Wilmington, stuck in crawling traffic. Crawling in the wrong direction.

I turn around and head back. Sometimes the pace on the I95 slows to a standstill. I got a ride to a coffee shop, but now that is closing as well. Hang in there, I should be back within… Hours. It took hours to navigate back to Wilmington. And then many more hours to turn around and drive back to D.C.

For all the hassle and headache of driving during possibly the only freak storm to hit the wider DC area this entire year, I have to say this: it was an adventure. And with a cake at the end of the Baltimore tunnel. Because driving in late into D.C., you have the reward of a great dinner ahead. D.C. has what Madison does not: a huge number of excellent, medium priced eating establishments. Oh, the lingering memory of the steaming dish of gnocchi with scampi, a glass (or two…) of chilled white wine and a plateful of hot ligurian cookies! With an espresso.

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DC has another virtue over Madison, making it a supremely good place to visit now: freak March storms may ice up the roads one day, but the next morning it will all be gone. Spring will return. And stay there.

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and so... was the drive to Wilmington from D.C.,? Short, wasn't it?

No, it was not.

I had studied the weather charts. I knew I was in for some heavy storms. But navigating hours upon hours of this?

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Allow me to recover first. Until tomorrow.